Stand By to Be Astounded! February 3, 2009

by Craig A. Satterlee
Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics; Dean, ACTS D.Min. in Preaching Program

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Jesus brought disciples with him when he went to Capernaum.  We all bring people with us when we come to seminary.  Some of those people are physically here with us - the children who started new schools and the spouses working so hard so that we can study theology and prepare for ministry.  Some of the people we bring with us to seminary are here in every way except being physically present.  They're the spouses, kids, significant others, parents and friends who put up with our prolonged absences and who we desperately miss.  They offer prayers, send cards (sometimes with checks), ask too many questions, allow us to vent, and get mad at the church on our behalf.  Then there are the people we bring with us to seminary that we do not know yet.  They are the people we will one day serve, whether in congregations, classrooms, institutions and agencies, or models of ministry that have not yet emerged. 

With so many people behind us, with so many people supporting us, with so many people investing in us (not to mention faculty and staff, congregations and the church who claim as part of their mission to prepare us), we surely feel the pressure to produce like Jesus.  There are so many unclean spirits to be cast out - in LSTC, Hyde Park, the church, our nation, and all around the world.  "Be silent, and come out!" We long to command those unclean spirits.  But, alas, we're not Jesus.  But surely we can be the means through which Christ works!  Except that there are books to read, papers to write, lectures to listen to, MIC, CPE, Form D, internship interviews, synod assignments, comprehensive exams, and summative evaluations.  That about sums up the semester.  So how are we to call out unclean spirits? 

Truth be told, our time for calling out unclean spirits will come, and Christ might ask us to do a bit of that here and now.  But whether this is your first semester of seminary, your last semester of seminary, or what feels like yet another semester of seminary, Jesus invites us to do something simpler and harder.  Jesus invites us to join the crowd in the synagogue and be astounded at Jesus' teaching, and to experience the Christ as one having authority to command even unclean spirits. 

"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" The unclean spirit asked.  "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."  Some scholars say that the reason the unclean spirit recognized Jesus is that Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God.  In the synagogue, both Jesus and the man were possessed by spirits; as we used to say on the playground, "It takes one to know one."  Jesus received God's Spirit when it descended upon him at the Jordan.  God's Spirit took possession of Jesus during forty days in the wilderness, when Jesus was tempted by Satan.   I imagine Jesus' wilderness time to be one of searching and struggle, of discovering and doubting, of questioning and of becoming clear, convicted and convinced.  Then Jesus commanded spirits, cured diseases, called people to faith, cultivated God's kin'dom, and changed the world.  And on the cross, Jesus yielded up the spirit - to the world, to the church, to us.  

Whether we think of seminary as a synagogue or a wilderness or both, and regardless of whether we count our time here in terms of semesters, years or weeks, it's a precious time of being filled with Christ's spirit as we are astounded by Jesus' teaching.  It's a privileged time of studying the faith for both the people we bring with us and the people we will serve one day, as well as the church we love and the world that so needs to be astounded by Christ's presence and power.

And so, today, we anoint the hands of those who are beginning this astounded time.  The oil is both a baptismal reminder that we are beloved children of God and a clear indication that the Spirit sets us apart for the precious and privileged time of being astounded at Jesus' teaching.  During these years of seminary, our work is to open books, to turn pages, to write papers, to manipulate keyboards, to engage in conversation, to question, to struggle, to be astounded by Jesus' teaching and filled with Jesus' spirit. This work is not separate from ministry. We minister to and with those we brought with us to seminary by faithfully studying Scripture, diligently learning the faith, intentionally growing in spirit, and passionately practicing the arts of ministry.

Having your hands anointed, deciding to come to-or to come back to-seminary is controversial. Seminary challenges our tendency to distinguish between the academic and practical, between learning the tradition and engaging in mission. Seminary challenges us to be content to stand by and be astounded by Jesus' teaching, rather than rushing into the ministerial spotlight.  In the anointing, as in seminary, Jesus assures us that we have the Spirit, and Jesus slows us to so that the Spirit can astound and possess us.   


Mark 1:21-28

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